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Alpha USA on the Promise of Digital Evangelism Environments

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 6:00pm

This blog represents the opinion of Alpha USA, Barna’s research partner for our newest journal, Five Changing Contexts for Digital Evangelism. You can purchase the full journal now.

A woman sits on a bench in New York, overwhelmed with tears of desperation. Seeking diversion, she reaches for her phone and escapes into the stories of others. Scrolling and swiping, she comes across an ad for an online series of spiritual conversations. A spontaneous sign-up leads her to begin a 10–week online journey with people she has never met. To her surprise, she discovers a safe space to bring her fears and challenges and process her questions about faith. Over the next few weeks, she also develops a real connection with others in her group who are leaning into honest pursuit of what “more” in God means. Together, they decide to continue their discussions and friendship even after the course ends. 

This is one of countless true stories of how doors for digital evangelism have unexpectedly opened in a year of isolation and disorientation. These accounts showcase the unique opportunities the Church has in this global moment to reach people right where they are, right in the midst of the many questions being carried.

While the internet has a long list of liabilities, it has become a providential gateway to a much needed “third place.” This term, coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s, describes those places we frequent that don’t fall into the categories of home or work. Cafés, pubs and common rooms in cities around the world offer third places that have been increasingly, intentionally curated for people to share unhurried moments and conversations. People can gather in pairs and groups to learn from new perspectives and grow new friendships.

Now, in the isolation created by a global pandemic, a generation craving third place “havens” is being pushed online to find them. As we have found ourselves momentarily restricted from our familiar public spaces, the internet has filled the gap and met a critical need. Countless online platforms beckon the world to share the largest living room ever created, crowded with a greater diversity of people and perspectives than ever before. In a digital space, all are welcome to gather. Lost and found, churched and unchurched, there is room for everyone.

For the collective Church, there is clearly a kairos moment emerging to embrace engagement and fluency in this online frontier like never before. As most local communities have been forced to leave their buildings vacant, a virtual “welcome mat” has been laid before us to join the world where it presently gathers. It is vital that we accept this invitation. For those who are listening, there is a quiet cry for hope and healing rising up across every social divide.

Studies on eroding mental and emotional wellbeing emphasize this reality. Barna data gathered in May of 2020 show that half of Americans (51%) report feelings of loneliness at least weekly during COVID-19. That number jumps to 56 percent for those whose household income is $50k or less annually. A study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that roughly four times as many people reported symptoms of depression in June of 2020 than had in the second quarter of 2019. Anxiety, suicidal ideation and substance abuse were also all measured in this study, and each showed marked increase during 2020. In fact, 74 percent of respondents 18–24 years of age reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom.

These statistics are heartbreaking, yet understandable. We are wired to be social, needing true connection to thrive. Without community, our hope and ability to persevere though challenging circumstances begins to fade.

But new approaches to digital evangelism can move into this relational void, reaching back out toward the authentic interpersonal encounters we were designed for.

In this year marked by loss, tension and fear, many people have found themselves more isolated than they ever imagined. But together, the Church has an opportunity to build needed bridges and join God in his work of restoring life and connective tissue to dry bones across a global valley. By pioneering virtual spaces for deep and meaningful connection, we can offer people new ways to be heard, known and understood.

For decades, Alpha has invested in creating and curating spaces around real tables that allow for honest, hospitable spiritual conversations. Now, we are helping thousands of churches build and host virtual table moments. Like the woman in New York who found new community and faced her grief through an online course, we are watching these stories unfold like never before.

A few examples…

A bartender in New York had been running from God for 14 years and would never have shown up to Alpha in person. But he attended a virtual Alpha, opening his heart to God for the first time in his life. 

A woman in Atlanta was near the breaking point in a long battle with unforgiveness. She joined an online Alpha and, because she felt safe, was able to let that pain surface. Before her Alpha experience was over, she had begun taking next steps toward healing and forgiving the person who had wronged her. 

Even some who didn’t intend to participate in Alpha have been drawn into an encounter with God. For instance, a woman’s teenage son overheard her Alpha call and ended up surrendering his life to Jesus. The roommate of an Alpha host in Minnesota overheard an Alpha conversation, which provoked questions about faith, which led to her placing her faith in Jesus.

As churches of every size, style and expression have partnered in pioneering Alpha in an online environment, innumerable stories like these illustrate the surprising gift this course has become in this challenging season. And it is clear that as new digital doors are opening, many believers are eager to step through for the sake of others. Barna reports that half of churched Christians would like to be coached on or given tools for sharing their faith in online environments with non-Christians.

Why are digital evangelism environments working?

1. In digital environments, there are significantly lower barriers to entry.

  • Barna data tells us that 41 percent of non-Christians say they’re open to participating in spiritual conversations about Christianity if the experience feels friendly. Alpha has found that cultivating friendly / safe digital environments for non-believers is easier than you might think.
  • As the world has quickly acclimated to doing life with others online, Alpha offers hospitable, fun, empathetic hosts whose only agenda is to listen well. The ease of showing up to a Zoom room, compared with traveling to and physically entering an unfamiliar and daunting church facility, allows even skeptics to explore on safe ground.

2. In digital environments, there are simply no geographical limitations.

  • Currently, 17 percent of churchgoers who are extending invitations to digital church experiences say they invited non-local friends and 15 percent say they have invited non-local family.
  • Where geographical proximity has historically been a limiting factor, now the doors have digitally opened for anyone to attend an Alpha course anywhere online. Stories of distanced friends and relatives diving into online Alphas from different zip codes and time zones confirms an ease of accessibility never before experienced. Family members can participate with their moms, dads, siblings and kids wherever they are in the country.

3. In digital environments, attendance capacities are easily expanded.

  • Online tools can typically accommodate as many guests as show up, with a limitless supply of virtual tables to gather around. One church in California shared that they had the largest number of Alpha attendees ever when they moved online. A church in Iowa saw so many people join that they maxed out the number of possible Zoom breakouts allowed on a call. A church in Chicago shared that their Alpha attendance doubled in one week, and they experienced a higher percentage of declared skeptics joining Alpha online than they ever had in person.

4. In digital environments, authentic connections can happen with more frequency and depth.

  • Many communities are discovering that guests are willing to open up with much greater vulnerability when participating from the comfort of their own homes. One church leader observed, “When people have the home court advantage, walls come down a lot quicker.” As leaders are trained to listen and patiently draw out the big questions and concerns carried by guests, the floodgates of fears, hurts and raw emotions begin to open.
  • From the comfort of their own homes, it seems that people are willing to unpack their hearts with strangers like never before. Barna data has confirmed this as well. In fact, a notable 40 percent of adults agree they are more open to talking online with people who have opposing views on controversial topics than they would be in person. And, among non-Christians who report having had a digital discussion about Christianity with a friend or family member, nearly all (90%) report that the conversation went well.

At Alpha, we invite you to journey with us through this unforeseen chapter of both challenge and discovery. We are all learning to live and lead through this new reality. And it is vital for us to be on the pioneering frontline together, embracing and leveraging digital environments to establish meaningful connection with those who need it most.

Without question, the door is wide open for exploring new strategies for digital evangelism. As this Barna study reveals, 77 percent of those outside the Church say they have not been engaged in digital discussion about Christianity. The need and opportunity is clear. Whatever 2021 holds, virtual options will be essential—whether they run parallel with, or as a pathway toward, in-person environments.

Stories of breakthrough from churches nationwide make it clear that we can’t simply or solely return to in-person gatherings as restrictions are lifted.  Together, we can continue to create online moments marked by hospitable, virtual conversations.  For those carrying questions like never before, this is our moment to intentionally invest in virtual spaces that allow for anyone, anywhere to take the journey of discovering Jesus—and be welcomed, known and loved along the way.


Feature image by Jenny Smith on Unsplash.

The post Alpha USA on the Promise of Digital Evangelism Environments appeared first on Barna Group.

Jill Kinnaman’s Passing and What It Means for Barna Group

Tue, 24/11/2020 - 4:47am

Dear friends and partners,

On October 28, my wife, Jill, passed away from brain cancer. As you may know, it’s been more than a three-year journey for her—and for all of us who were consistently buoyed by her kindness, love and resilience. We knew that her cancer was terminal, and we’ve had 41 months to prepare ourselves, but the loss is extremely difficult.

The depth of the grief we’re experiencing is hard to put into words, though we are finding comfort in time together as a family and with friends. We are holding tightly to the ultimate hope that Jill is with Jesus. (If you’re inclined to do so, you’re welcome to view Jill’s memorial service here.)

One way that Jill and I agreed to fight the good fight was a mutual decision that I continue serving the Church and Christian leaders throughout her ordeal. That includes, of course, leading Barna as president through all the challenges that 2020 has thrown at Christian leaders and organizations. In many ways, my own suffering and loneliness have fostered more patience, empathy and trust in God as I’ve served leaders who are attempting to move forward faithfully amidst the cascading crises of 2020.

Now, I’ve decided to take a number of months of bereavement leave: to grieve, to serve and love my children (Emily, 21, Annika, 19, and Zack, 16), to read and rest, to paint and work with wood and to allow God to fill me up in the many places I feel hollow and empty. That means I’ll be off the rest of 2020 and into the first month or so of 2021. I may pop up here and there to work, as it provides connection and gives me joy. For the most part, though, I’ll be out of pocket.

In the meantime, Barna Group will continue its stellar work, full speed ahead. We’ve built an incredible team, and they love serving Christian leaders.

Which brings me to my request of you: Please engage Barna and our team in the coming months. Subscribe, buy and pursue new work with us, if you’re inclined. That’d be helpful. More than that, let us know if you need something fixed or if you’ve got concerns. You’re not doing me or us a favor by keeping out of our way. The team is willing and eager to work with you!

All of this is undergirded by the fact that Barna Group aspires to play a key role in facilitating a faithful and fruitful Church, especially as we finish such a pivotal year. We consider it a privilege to serve Christian leaders who are trying to navigate change. And this has been a year unlike any other. I believe—our whole team believes—that a new future for the Church is bubbling up in all this crisis and chaos and loss that we’ve experienced. God is at work even and especially in 2020!

At Barna, our team of experts is well equipped to help Christian leaders understand the trends, know the people they are serving, measure their impact, strengthen their teams and discern best practices. These kinds of capabilities are going to be even more essential going forward.

While I am out, Todd White will serve as Barna’s interim president. He’s been our CFO for five years and my friend for 20+ years. In addition, Barna Group will be well supported by several key partners as well. Carey Nieuwhof will continue to host the ChurchPulse Weekly podcast. And we will also continue our partnership with Scott Beck and the awesome team at Gloo, which includes Barna Access Plus and more. These partners (and many others!) have sustained me personally and professionally this year. Now, Carey and Scott are committed to being there for me and for Barna as I take time off.

To be honest, it feels weird stepping back, slowing down and resting when there’s so much at stake for the Church. Yet I’ve come to realize with startling clarity that it’s exactly for this reason that rest and renewal are critical to me as a leader and for the long-term health of the company.

I am heartbroken at the loss of Jill. Beyond her investments in family, home, church and neighborhood, our marriage served as the foundation for 11 years of my leading Barna and 25 total years of my working here. Her death leaves a massive hole in that partnership.

Jill and I decided at the earliest hours of this wild ride—when we first discovered the brain tumor in 2017—that we’d live open and courageously, allowing most of the details of our journey to be “public.” We wanted our faith, strong at times and rickety at others, to be visible for others to see. I am humbled that she and I have been able to offer glimpses into the road of sorrow and suffering, so that Jesus would be glorified.

Despite all we’ve lost, I have deep confidence in the Lord. That today he’s preparing the way for the future Church. That he desires to take each of us even deeper toward himself. That Isaiah 61:3 can, indeed, be my portion and for all of us who have suffered much this year.

To all who mourn in Israel,
he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
that the Lord has planted for his own glory.

The Lord has been comforting me with this scripture since Jill’s passing, and it’s my prayer for you as well.

With grief and gratitude,

David Kinnaman

November 2020

The post Jill Kinnaman’s Passing and What It Means for Barna Group appeared first on Barna Group.

Guest Column: Amy Crouch’s 3 Tips for Turning Boredom into Wonder

Wed, 18/11/2020 - 6:00pm

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “Gen Z?”

I bet it might have something to do with technology. As a 20-year-old, I know that my generation has developed a reputation for being obsessed with our phones and permanently glued to the Internet.

Would you be surprised to hear that I think my generation might be the start of a revolution in how we use technology—kicking off a thoughtful, wise approach to screens? In my experience, Gen Z is tired with the way our devices manipulate us. While we’re grateful for the help that our devices can bring, we are also concerned about the ways that screens are making us become more lonely, busy, and bored.

However, I’ve noticed that many of my peers are at a loss to respond to these problems. We don’t want to succumb to the pressures of tech, but many of us don’t know how to avoid it.

That’s why I wrote my new book, My Tech-Wise Life, to share my personal story of growing up in what my dad called a “tech-wise family” and encourage my generation to join me in facing technology with discernment, courage and joy.

Technology makes lots of promises, and I don’t believe it can fulfill all of them. Case in point: its promise to entertain us when we’re bored.

Netflix, YouTube, video games and even news websites are all centered around providing us with entertainment in dull hours. And I’m not surprised there’s such a demand; we all get bored sometimes, and it’s appealing to be able to turn on the TV or unlock our phones for endless entertainment.

But I’m worried that tech doesn’t actually fix our boredom. It only disguises it—and makes us more likely to get bored in the future.

Being bored typically results from too much familiarity. If the same thing has been going on for hours and days at a time, the activities we usually do feel too familiar. Tech is so amazing because it offers us something new every time we hit refresh. Its limitations seem endless, especially as it is impossible for anyone to consume all the content on the internet, no matter how long they live!

So, in a dull moment, it makes sense that we want something new and interesting. That’s what tech offers us.

But here’s the problem—leaning on our devices to help get us through unexciting moments actually makes it harder for us to avoid boredom. The real world will never be able to offer us that kind of interest. It’ll never give us as much flashy, on-demand newness as our devices. Tech wins in those comparisons.

But I don’t think that getting used to the pace of tech, rather than the embodied world, is good for our souls. The world is God’s creation! People are made in God’s image! I fear that tech is pushing us to be less content and less willing to rejoice in what God has made—who God is.

See, the real world isn’t actually boring. But it does require attention. Marvels don’t always jump out at us. Sometimes, we have to go on a detective hunt for joy.

I’m worried that tech makes us less likely to want to go on that detective hunt. But I don’t believe that the rewards of tech are as delightful as the rewards of the real world, because we’re made for the real world—created to experience it. Tech is a good thing, but it’s also human-created. It will never rival God’s own creation.

It’s time for us to embrace boredom. Beyond boredom lies wonder.

Here are my top tips for embracing boredom and rediscovering wonder on a regular basis.

1. Leave your phone behind as much as possible. When possible, don’t bring it along with you when you go out. When you’re home or visiting a friend, leave it out of sight and out of mind. For instance, I like to avoid bringing my phone to church. If I do bring it with me, I leave it in my coat pocket at the coatrack. In my experience, urgent and life-altering news rarely comes on a Sunday morning. Being forced to pay attention to the world around you yields delightful rewards.

2. Make time for regular silence and solitude in the natural world. We need to be cultivating the ability to seek out wonder and joy—that detective hunt I mentioned earlier. We need to work on being detectives and searching for the bright and beautiful. In light of this, I recommend setting aside some time to be silent and solitude in nature. Go for walks without your phone. Sit in silence outdoors. It’s deeply grounding. If you just have one tree in the square mile, find that tree. Sit beside it (or in it), take a deep breath and be still for a time.

3. Observe the Sabbath. Sabbath is good for us in a million ways, and its blessings extend to our use of tech. Turn off or withhold from technology and devices on the Sabbath as well. Instead of being distracted by devices, what could restorative rest look like for you? It may look like wonder—experiencing the world in its beauty and joy.

I truly believe that we need to take time to experience the real world—God’s creation—around us daily. The smell and sparkle of sunshine after a rainstorm, the lump in our throats when we hear tragic news, the way our heart swells when we’re hugged by someone we cherish. In-person presence with others is fundamentally different than maintaining connections via technology. Is it more difficult? Yes. But it is infinitely more rewarding.

Feature image by Pietro de Grandi on Unsplash.

The post Guest Column: Amy Crouch’s 3 Tips for Turning Boredom into Wonder appeared first on Barna Group.

Guest Column: Carey Nieuwhof on Generational Preferences for In-Person Worship Post-COVID

Wed, 11/11/2020 - 6:00pm

The following is an excerpt from Carey Nieuwhof’s blog. To read the full story, click here.

So how many people are coming back to in-person gatherings when COVID is over?

Apparently fewer than you think. And fewer than you’d hope.

According to a recent Barna study, Six Questions About the Future of the Hybrid Church Experience, only 41 percent of Gen Z say that when COVID is over, they want to return to primarily in-person worship. 42 percent of Millennials say they prefer primarily in-person worship. Which means, of course, that the majority don’t.

Looking at this, it’s easy to think “Well, this is just an unprecedented year. Things will get back to normal soon.”

Maybe, except it’s hard to go back to normal when normal is disappearing.

The very low attendance numbers that many church leaders often dismiss as medical (i.e. caused by COVID) may actually be a much deeper cultural and generational shift than we realize.

A further drill down shows that parents are looking at hybrid options (combination of in person and digital) more seriously than non-parents. And that women are more open to digital church than men.

Crisis is an accelerator, and so many of the trends we’ve been seeing over the last few decades are now happening faster than ever, in real time.

The digital genie is out of the bottle.

Your church is still around. The Church is still around. It’s just  leaving the building.

Here’s the challenge with not changing: vaccines can’t solve cultural and generational shifts. Innovation will, but vaccines won’t.

Now, have a look at the chart above. You know who really desires physical gatherings?


Seventy-one percent of Boomers say they want primarily in-person church attendance after COVID is over. For Gen Z, only 41 percent prefer primarily physical gatherings in the future. That’s a 30-point gap.

A 30-point gap is a large gap… and here’s how it might be impacting your leadership.

First, the average senior pastor is a Boomer. According to a Barna survey, the average age of the senior pastors in America in 2017 was 54. That’s an almost four-year-old statistic, which would now push that average age into the late fifties.

Look at the composition of many church boards, senior leadership teams and key donors (or even volunteers), and you might get some group-think going based around your own personal preferences: doesn’t everybody want to come back to attend in person?  According to this research, that’s exactly how older adults would think.

Except it’s not reflective of anyone under age 55.

If you think Gen Z is an anomaly, again, look at the chart. Only a minority of Millennial, Gen Z— and even Gen X—want to primarily gather in person in the future.

The changes happening right now in church attendance preferences are not just cultural, they’re generational.

So what can you do?

First, get some young leaders around your table. Don’t just get them sharing opinions… get them making decisions.

Second, rethink the allocation of resources you’re spending on in-person gatherings versus online ministry. You’ll make your own choices, but most churches are spending less than 10% of their time and budget on the very thing that will probably give them the greatest potential for the future—a strong online presence.

In many ways, this confirms what you already know. Regular church attendance has been dropping for decades. The crisis appears to have accelerated that.

In person isn’t going away. But it likely won’t play the role it used to even as recently as a year ago.

If your mission is to fill buildings, then keep going with your current strategy. But if your mission is to reach people, it might be time to rethink things.

To read Carey Nieuwhof’s full blog post, click here.

To learn more about to learn more about Barna’s new journal, Six Questions About the Future of the Hybrid Church Experience, click here. Check out Barna’s Digital Church channel on Barna Access Plus to peruse a list of content specifically curated to help pastors and teams navigate the digital or hybrid church space they currently find themselves in.

Feature image by Daniel Morton on Unsplash.

The post Guest Column: Carey Nieuwhof on Generational Preferences for In-Person Worship Post-COVID appeared first on Barna Group.